|Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries: A Critique|
Here in England where I live, we are certain that some things are always going to happen - it will rain in August, we’ll be beaten at soccer and that there will be no end to the line of pseudo-historical books about Jesus.
For the last of these, I really must apologise on behalf of my countrymen. G. A. Wells, the Holy Blood and Holy Grail crew, and now The Jesus Mysteries have all issued forth from these shores on to an unsuspecting world. It’s beginning to get embarrassing.
The Jesus Mysteries is by Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke. They haven’t got a peer reviewed paper or scholarly monograph between them but no one ever said that a complete lack of the relevant qualifications should prevent someone writing a book on Jesus. Publishers positively encourage it because these sorts of books make a lot of money. They are called ‘wah-wah’ books in the trade which, as you can tell, isn’t very flattering, and they are not to be taken seriously. HarperCollins, who publishes The Jesus Mysteries, has even decided to use a special imprint called ‘Thorsons’ for everything they publish in the field. This is a good idea as it distances their still quite respectable name from some of the trash they need to bring out to stay in business.
The basic idea behind the Jesus Mysteries is that tired old saw that Jesus never existed and was a product of various pagan myths. Glenn Miller has nailed this idea to our almost total satisfaction here, and now J. P. Holding himself is piecing together the rebuttal to end all rebuttals here. So rather than repeat these great men’s work, I’d like to concentrate on some of the specific howlers and shady practices in the present book.
With a background in New Age mysticism and spiritualism neither Gandy nor Freke have ever before demonstrated much grasp of critical history or biblical interpretation. Their university degrees are not relevant to the task at hand or especially bedazzling (a BA and MA) but the way they are shouting them from the dust cover makes one wonder if they expect their readership to be impressed by a Masters from a British University (where they are a lot easier to come by than in North America).
During a short exchange I had with Peter Gandy on an Internet Discussion Board I asked him if any academics at respectable universities supported his thesis. Of course, he did not give me an answer as it would have to be in the negative. Instead, ‘wah-wah’ book authors like to claim that real scholars secretly agree with them but dare not speak out and face the scorn of their colleagues. This, if true, would be most unfortunate for academic research but thankfully it is just another myth from the conspiracy theorists. I mean, to challenge the hegemony of evolution is professional death for any scientist but there seem to be quite a few willing to speak out. Perhaps, it’s just that Christians are more willing to take risks for their beliefs than our opponents….
The truth, of course, is that the academy is no longer the friend of Christianity. The Jesus Seminar are quite happy to challenge our most central claim about the Resurrection and there is no doubt that if their misguided researches were to tell them that Jesus was a pagan myth, they would be shouting it from the roof tops (or at least, the cover of Newsweek). Yet even they, willing to discard all notions of objectivity to recreate a Jesus who is to their liking, have no time for the Jesus myth. And if even the enemies of orthodox Christianity do not take it seriously, why on earth should we?
One thing that can be said for the Jesus Mysteries is that it has a long bibliography and lots of notes. This is an essential part of any scholarly work but sadly in this case it does not live up to its billing. For a start, very many of the books referred to in the notes are extremely old and very hard to get hold of for any one without a first class library at hand. I took my copy of the Jesus Mysteries with me when I went to a summer school at the University of Wales thinking that there at least I would be able to find the books the authors refer to. Not a bit of it. Unperturbed, I tried the unfeasibly large University of London Library where I met with a shade more success but still found few of the older authorities on Mithras.
This is serious because many of the claims made about parallels between Jesus and pagan figures are only justified by reference to books that are nearly a hundred years out of date and, as J. P. Holding has demonstrated, modern Mithras studies have moved on a good deal. In the few cases where I could check their sources something rather surprising came up. Freke and Gandy are so selective and vague with their references that I could find a statement that totally contradicts their central thesis on the very page that they pointed to.
A couple of examples will surface to show we are not dealing with a pair of objective scholars but people who are willing to pull the wool over the eyes of their readers. They refer many times to The Mysteries of Mithra by Francis Cumont and published in 1903. Yet we find that in his comparison of Mithraism and Christianity, Cumont (certainly no friend of Christianity himself) specifically states that unlike Mithras, Jesus was a real person.
When dealing with ancient sources they are even more blatant. On the basis of some third century pictures of crucifixions, the authors claim Bacchuus was crucified and Christians copied the idea. This is their piece de resistance and they even put one of the pictures on the cover of their book. But suppose there existed an earlier source who stated categorically that no pagan godman was crucified. That would destroy their case and reading the Jesus Mysteries you would assume that neither Freke or Gandy knew of such a source even if it existed. You would be wrong.
They quote from Justin Martyr many times about his concerns that pagans and Christians had some similar rituals (they did and modern scholarship is totally unsurprised by this). He is a second century writer who therefore predates all the pictures of pagan godmen being crucified and he writes:
"But in no instance, not even in any of those called sons of Jupiter, did they imitate the being crucified; for it was not understood by them, all the things said of it having been put symbolically.” Justin Martyr ’s First Apology LV.
No honest scholar would simply fail to quote this vitally important contradiction to their thesis. Gandy did attempt to explain away this passage when it was presented to him but failed utterly and certainly could not say why he ever felt he could simply miss it out of his book.
A few other points should be made in case anyone is still tempted to take this book seriously. The most quoted NT ‘scholars’ are Ian Wilson and our old friend G. A. Wells (a professor of German!). They claim to make reference to Wilson because his books are widely available but far superior scholarship is to be found in any library. It is ironic they are concerned that their readers should be able to find this book easily but use much older and more obscure books for the meat and drink of their argument.
Also, they claim that the ancients ‘knew’ the earth went around the sun. This is untrue. Although some Greek thinkers (well, one I know of) suggested this, the model of the Earth being the motionless centre was nearly universally accepted by the Greeks (including Aristotle and Ptolemy among others). To hint that the heliocentric model was knowledge lost because of Christianity is simply daft.
They say that ‘no serious scholar’ believes Josephus wrote any of the Testamonium. I take it this is a joke or else they are claiming J. D. Crossan, R. T. France, Raymond Brown, John P. Meier, Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox etc etc are not serious scholars. We might not agree with all of these guys (I mean, the last two are atheists) but we certainly consider them serious scholars.
Freke and Gandy claim early Christians destroyed ancient pagan texts wholesale. In fact the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature makes it clear that there was no policy of destruction and the church was active in preserving ancient texts. Glenn Miller has fully investigated this widespread and baseless accusation. The oft repeated accusation that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria is simply an eighteenth century myth. In fact, the quotations in The Jesus Mysteries are from Ray MacMullen’s Enemies of the Roman Order which is a book that demonstrates that Christian policy was basically identical to pagan policy with regard to the suppression of subversive literature.
In their survey of the New Testament, the authors say that only seven of Paul’s letters are genuine and that the Acts of the Apostles is a second century fiction. They explain that the Paul revealed in the genuine letters was a Gnostic and that the spurious letters and Acts were written to cover it up. The allegation that the letters are fakes is dealt with elsewhere but just suppose it is true. In that case, we would not expect to find Freke and Gandy quoting from Acts and the spurious letters to make their ridiculous point that Paul was really a Gnostic. But that is exactly what they do using both Colossians and Ephesians.
Lastly, I should point out a relatively minor error that would however expose any undergraduate who made it to the scorn and derision of their tutor. Pretty much throughout the book the authors refer to the Roman Catholic Church as if it were the same entity that it is today. The fact is that during the period they discuss there was no distinct ‘Roman Catholic Church’ because all orthodox Christians were still united. I expect, however, that the policy was deliberate on the part of the authors as no ‘wah-wah’ book is complete without an evil conspiracy emanating from the Vatican.
Still, if anachronism is the greatest crime a historian it is probably the least of the sins of Messrs Freke and Gandy.
- James Hannam
Update: Hannam has recently done some more research on that picture of Dionysus/Orpheus on the cover and it's worth repeating. Here's the full commentary from Bede as it appears in his online journal:
Some news and thoughts on the crucified Orpheus image on the front cover of the Jesus Mysteries.The authors, Peter Gandy and Timothy Freke, present this as evidence that Jesus was derived from the mystery religions. We can reject that, but the question remains, what is this amulet and why does it show a pagan god on a Christian symbol?
The gem in question was housed in a Berlin museum but lost during the Second World War. It is dated to the fourth century and intended as a stone to be set on a ring. Such gems are very common in museums - literally tens of thousands are known. A few are Christian, even showing Jesus crucified but the crucified Orpheus gem is unique. If not found in situ by archaeologists they are very hard to date and fakes are extremely common as any competent jeweler could create them easily enough. Today, large numbers have been exposed and no attribution is safe.
Freke and Gandy do not supply a reference for the picture in their book but kindly let me know by email. The first they supplied was R Eisler, Orpheus the Fisher (Kessinger Publishing reprints), first published in 1920 and where the fourth century date for the amulet is given and it is illustrated. Interestingly it is dated to the fourth century simply by virtue of its representation of a crucifixion so could, in theory be older or more recent.
The second reference was WKC Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion Princeton University Press, 1952. This is the second edition and discusses the amulet at some length on page 265. He mentions the views of Eisler and Otto Kern who was a very distinguished German expert on Orpheus. At the time, both considered the gem to be an ancient Orphic artifact and Eisler suggested their was a tradition of a crucified Orpheus. Pointing to the evidence of Justin Martyr, who denies there ever was a crucified pagan, Guthrie rightly rejects this interpretation.
In correspondence published on the Secular Web's discussion board, Freke wrote:
"The irony - of course- is that we are not making any spectacular claims about the amulet at all. Only that it exists - which we have taken on trust from coming across it a couple of times in our research - and that the Jesus Mysteries thesis explains it very neatly. Our thesis certainly doesn't rest on it in any way. (It is after all from the 3rd century CE if the dating is right, which we have not challenged). Our thesis is an attempt to explain a vast body of otherwise puzzling information. The amulet did play a psychological role for us - however -when it unexpectedly turned up late in our research. And of course it makes a very striking cover."
It does indeed make a striking cover, especially when computer enhanced. But there is a final kicker to this story that Freke failed to mention. I found an endnote to the 1952 edition of Guthrie's work (page 278) states:
"In his review of this book [Orpheus and Greek Religion] in Gnomon (1935, p 476), [Otto] Kern [unfeasibly esteemed German expert on Orpheus] recants and expresses himself convinced by the expert opinion of Reil and Zahn [more distinguished Germans] that the gem is a forgery." (emphasis added)
I looked up the review in Gnomon but it is in German so I can't make anything of it. Still, the gem has been branded a forgery by noted experts. Luckily for Freke and Gandy that they don't think the gem important to their thesis, but you still have to ask what it was doing on the front cover of their book. And one can also have suspicions as to why they didn't give a reference to where the picture came from.
If you like this review, be sure and visit James Hannam's page also.